By Andrew Peregrine
One of the most complex parts of any game is combat and conflict. So, it seems worthwhile to dedicate a few blogs to the system. Although, as with all rules for the game, you should take all this as advice rather than hard rules you need to apply. Hopefully you’ll find it useful enough to add to your game.
The Nature of Conflict
It doesn’t hurt to add a reminder about the design theory behind Dune conflict. I say this as it is one of the bigger gear changes to get used to compared to other games. Most combat systems assume each action a character makes is an attempt to take a swing or a shot at the enemy. In Dune, actually thrusting a blade is the last thing you do. Instead of fighting back and forth, Dune conflict is about testing your opponent’s defenses and putting your weapon in just the right place for a decisive victory. The first attack is always the last, because a well placed blade is all it takes to end the fight. This means that most of conflict is about moving assets until the time is right to strike.
While this is easier to explain with physical combat metaphors, intrigue is no different. Getting the right allies on your side, leveraging the correct favors against your enemy and getting close enough to learn their secrets all work just the same. It is moving assets into place until you finally use your favor or blackmail material at just the right moment to crush your enemy.
Declaring the Outcome
As the final move is the most important, it is important to declare early on what each side wants to get out of a fight. Winning a conflict means defeating an enemy, but that might not be killing them or driving them from society forever. You might be blackmailing an enemy into parting with a resource you want or trying to take someone prisoner rather than killing them. Right at the start of the conflict the players should declare the outcome they are aiming for.
Having said that, the NPCs might not be quite on board with that. Some assailants will never allow themselves to be taken alive. Others might kill themselves rather than betray their House. Just because the player characters want a certain outcome, it doesn’t always mean they will get it. It is up to the gamemaster to decide exactly what the result of a defeat will be. They should balance what the player characters want against what the NPC will allow.
For instance, the players are fighting a group of thugs they declare they are happy to kill. The thugs aren’t so keen on dying for the cause so the gamemaster decides defeat will mean they run away. Conversely for an agent making a point of not wanting to be taken alive, defeat means death. The player characters can only discover what their opponents are willing to suffer when defeat occurs. They might be stunned to see their assailants run, or die on their blades.
Having said that, the NPC is still defeated. It is only the circumstances of that defeat that are in question. If the PCs manage to defeat an enemy in an intrigue to get them to reveal a secret, they cannot just decide not to reveal the secret without consequence. Having been forced into a position where they must reveal the secret, they will have to take an extreme measure to prevent the secret coming out. This might be killing themselves or destroying the secret in some way. Whatever they do, they will have to make a sacrifice because they have still been defeated and are now backed into a corner.
There is a way the player characters can change this though. If they discover (or believe) an NPC might try and wriggle out of the outcome the players want for a defeat they can spend 2 Momentum to enforce the outcome. This is a variant of the ‘lasting injury’ rule on p168. Before the gamemaster narrates any outcome the Momentum can be spent and the player can narrate the outcome instead. This allows you to decide an assailant planning to die rather than be captured, is captured, or that defeat means death for the fighter hoping to run if things go badly.
What is important to remember is that the stakes need to be set before the fight, or at least before actions are taken. The players may decide to try and take some assailants alive before resolving the next turn of a conflict. But they can’t change their mind and decide to take a prisoner after they manage to defeat them if they had already insisted they would kill all their assailants.
As always, the gamemaster is the final arbiter, and they shouldn’t cheat the player characters of a full victory too often. However, they should keep them on their toes by ensuring even a defeated enemy doesn’t always fall they way they expected.